The incredible shrinking operating system

Windows, Mac OS, and Linux are all getting smaller. What does that mean for you?

From the software concept called JeOS (pronounced "juice"), the Just Enough OS, to hardware concepts like Celio RedFly, an 8-inch screen and keyboard device running applications off a smartphone via a USB or a Bluetooth connection, there are an increasing number of indications that the center of gravity is shifting away from the traditional massive operating systems of the past.

Even the major OS vendors themselves are saying that the next versions of their OS -- Windows 7, Linux in its many distributions, and Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard -- are getting a smaller footprint.

There are many reasons for the traditional OS to shrink and for new OSes to start small, but two stand out:

One, a smaller code base is easier to manage and secure than a large one. For example, estimates for Vista's development costs run around $6 billion, and BusinessWeek has estimated that 10,000 employees spent about five years developing it.

Two, a smaller OS can run on a greater variety of devices, and as netbooks, smartphones, and new devices such as the iPod Touch gain traction, the benefit of a smaller OS becomes hard to ignore. Today, Microsoft's Windows Mobile is a separate code base from the desktop Windows, while Apple's iPhone OS is a both a subset of and extension of the Mac OS. In both cases, that adds a lot of work for their companies and for application developers. And it means that customers must support an unwieldy number of operating systems.

What Microsoft, Apple, and the Linux community are up to

"Ideally, we want to see Windows 7 run across a spectrum of hardware: small, standard, or desktop," says James DeBragga, general manager of Windows Consumer Marketing at Microsoft. Apple hasn't said why it wants Mac OS X to use fewer resources, but a common theory is that it wants future iPhones and perhaps netbook or tablet devices to run the same OS as its beefier Macs do.

DeBragga said that Microsoft designed Windows 7 to reduce the overall memory footprint compared with Windows Vista. It did so by reducing the overall number of services running at boot, improving Desktop Windows Manager memory consumption and reducing the memory requirements for features throughout Windows 7. "Users have no patience for a long boot-up or shut-down time," says Dan Kusnetzky, an independent research analyst.

Linux distribution vendors are also slimming down their versions of Linux. Ubuntu, for example, has stripped out MySQL, CUPS (Common Unix Printing Service), e-mail, and LDAP functionality to bring the size of its OS down from about 700MB to 200MB.

And Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu have all delivered stripped-down versions of their Linux distros for use in virtual appliances, several of which often run on one physical computer, so footprint becomes a key issue for them. Red Hat's AOS (Application Operating System), for example, lets you run Linux Enterprise Edition apps unmodified in a portable virtual machine. And JeOS -- which Ubuntu, Novell, and others offer -- builds a stack that is "just enough" to support that application by analyzing what APIs and library components need to be called for what functions.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags operating system

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Ephraim Schwartz

InfoWorld
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?